A Modern Symposium I

Influence upon Morality of a Decline in Religious Belief
The Nineteenth Century (May 1877)

[536] We are led to do this thing, and to avoid that, partly by instinct and partly by conscious motives; and our conduct is said to be moral or the reverse, partly on the ground of its effects upon other beings, partly upon that of its operation upon ourselves.

Social morality relates to that course of action which tends to increase the happiness or diminish the misery of other beings; personal morality relates to that which has the like effect upon ourselves.

If this be so, the foundation of morality must needs lie in the constitution of nature, and must depend on the mental construction of ourselves and of other sentient beings.

The constitution of man remaining what it is, his capacity for the pleasures and pains afforded by sense, by sympathy, or by the contemplation of moral beauty and ugliness, is obviously in no way affected by the abbreviation or the prolongation of his conscious life; nor by the mere existence or non-existence of anything not included in nature; nor, so long as he believes that actions have consequences, does it matter to him what connection there may be between these actions and other phenomena of nature.

The assertion that morality is in any way dependent upon the views respecting certain philosophical problems a person may chance to hold, produces the same effect upon my mind as if one should say that a man's vision depends on his theory of light; or that he has no business to be sure that ginger is hot in the mouth unless he has formed definite views, in the first place, as to the nature of ginger, and, secondly, as to whether he has or has not a sensitive soul.

[537] Social morality belongs to the realm of inductive and deductive investigation. Given a society of human beings under certain circumstances; and the question whether a particular action on the part of one of the members of that society will tend to the increase of the general happiness or not, is a question of natural knowledge, and, as such, is a perfectly legitimate subject of scientific inquiry. And the morality or immorality of the action will depend upon the answer which the question receives.

If it can be shown by observation or experiment that theft, murder, and adultery do not tend to diminish the happiness of society, then, in the absence of any but natural knowledge, they are not social immoralities.

It does not follow, however, that they might not be personal immoralities. Without committing myself to any theory of the origin of the moral sense, or even as to the existence of any such special sense, I may suggest that it is quite conceivable that discords and harmonies may affect the congeries of feelings to which we give the name, as they do others.

I see no reason for doubting that the beauty of holiness and the ugliness of sin are, to a great many minds, no mere metaphors, but feelings as real and as intense as those with which the beauty or ugliness of form or colour fills the artist mind, and that they are as independent of intellectual beliefs, and even of education, as are all the true æsthetic powers and impulses.

On the other hand, I do not doubt the existence of persons, like the hero of the Fatal Boots , devoid of any sense of moral beauty or ugliness, and for them personal morality has no existence. They may offend, but they cannot sin; they may be sorry for having stolen or murdered, because society punishes them for their social immoralities, but they are incapable of repentance.

Before going further, I think it may be needful to discriminate between religion and theo[538]logy. I object to the very general use of the terms Religion and Theology as if they were synonymous, or indeed had anything whatever to do with one another. Religion is the affair of the affections, theology of the intellect. The religious man loves an ideal perfection, which may be natural or non-natural; the theologian expounds the attributes of what he terms 'supernatural' Being as so many scientific truths, the consequences of which work into the general scheme of nature, and are there discernible by ordinary methods of investigation. What the theologian affirms may be put in this way: that beyond the natura naturata , mirrored or made by the natural operations of the human mind, there is a natura naturans , sufficient knowledge of which is attainable only through the channel of revelation.

Now I think it cannot be doubted that both religion and theology, as thus defined, have exercised, and must exercise, a profound influence on morality. For it may be that the object of a man's religion–the ideal which he worships–is an ideal of sensual enjoyment, or of domination, or of the development of all his faculties towards perfection, or of self-annihilation, or of benevolence; and his personal morality will, in part, be swayed and bent until it harmonises with that ideal.

Moreover, it is clear that a man's theology may give him such views of the action of the natura naturans as will profoundly modify or even reverse his social morality.

He may see ground for believing that conduct of evil effect, upon society, which is part of the natura naturata, is in harmony with the laws of action of the natura naturans ; and that, as the rewards and punishments of men are but slight and temporary, while those inflicted by the greater power behind the natura naturata are grievous and endless, common prudence may dictate obedience to the stronger. And history proves that there is no social crime that man can commit which has not been dictated by theology and committed on theological grounds. On the other hand, the belief that the divine commands are identical with the laws of social morality has lent infinite strength to the latter in all ages.

In like manner it seems to me impossible to overestimate the influence of speculative beliefs as to the nature of the Deity, apart from all idea of rewards and punishments, upon personal morality. The lover of moral beauty, struggling through a world full of sorrow and sin, is surely as much the stronger for believing that sooner or later a vision of perfect peace and goodness will burst upon him, as the toiler up a mountain for the belief that beyond crag and snow lies home and rest. For the other side of the picture, who shall exaggerate the deadly influence on personal morality of those theologies which have represented the Deity as vainglorious, irritable, and revengeful–as a sort of pedantic drill-sergeant of mankind, to whom no valour, no long-tried loyalty, could atone for the misplacement of a button of the uniform, or the misunderstanding of a paragraph of the 'regulations and instructions'?

While no one can dare history, or even look about him, without admitting the enormous influence of theology on morality, it would perhaps be hard to say whether it has been greater or less than the influence of morality on theology. But the latter topic is not at present under discussion; and the only further remark I would venture to add is this–that the intensity and reality of the action of theological beliefs upon morality are precisely measured by the conviction of those who hold them that they are true. That such and such a doctrine conduces to morality, and disbelief in it to immorality, may be demonstrated by an endless array of convincing [530] syllogisms; but unless the doctrine is true, the practical result of this expenditure of logic is not apparent. I have not the slightest doubt that if mankind could be got to believe that every socially immoral act would be instantly followed by three months' severe toothache, such acts would soon cease to be perpetrated. It would be a faith charged with most beneficent works, but unfortunately this faith can so easily be shown to be disaccordant with fact that it is not worth while to become its prophet.

For my part I do not for one moment admit that morality is not strong enough to hold its own. But if it is demonstrated to me that I am wrong, and that without this or that theological dogma the human race will lapse into bipedal cattle, more brutal than the beasts by means of their greater cleverness, my next question is to ask for proof of the truth of the dogma.

If this proof is forthcoming, it is my conviction that no drowning sailor ever clutched a hencoop more tenaciously that mankind will hold by such dogma, whatever it may be. But if not, then I verily believe that the human race will go its evil way; and my only consolation lies in the reflection that, however bad our posterity may become, so long as they hold by the plain rule of not pretending to believe what they have no reason to believe because it may be to their advantage so to pretend, they will not have reached the lowest depths of immorality.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University